Yesterday in my rhetoric class we discussed Neil Postman’s take on information theory. He defines “information,” “knowledge,” and “wisdom” in a hierarchy that I find particularly useful for teaching students how to construct persuasive messages and interpret journalistic messages. You’ll find this in chapter five of Building a Bridge to the 18th Century.
Information, according to Postman, is a statement about the world based on fact. Knowledge is organized information that is “embedded in some context” and has a purpose, such as leading one to “to seek further information in order to understand something about the world.” He draws this distinction: “Without organized information, we may know something of the world, but we know very little about it.” Wisdom, then, is the “capacity to know what body of knowledge is relevant to the solution of significant problems.” Or, put another way, knowing what questions to ask. The “fundamental requirement” of a knowledge medium is that it explain context and purpose, i.e. make it clear “why we are being given information.” Postman makes the argument that newspapers should be in the knowledge and wisdom business, not the information business.
Television is in the information business. So is the internet according to Postman. But I disagree about the internet. The internet is certainly an efficient information medium, but we can see that newspapers, especially those with reporters and editors who aspire to more than the dissemination of information, help make this a knowledge medium, too. The presence of newspapers on the internet help move it up the hierarchy. And I would say that bloggers create the potential for wisdom in this medium. When well done, blogging organizes information by context and purpose and shows what bodies of knowledge are relevant to solving the problems of the day. In other words, I argue that blogging can be a wise use of the internet.
Will we rise to that standard?